Ahead of Indigenous Literacy Day on September 7th, we spoke to Alison Lester, one of Australia’s most loved picture book authors and an Indigenous Literacy Foundation ambassador, about her work with the ILF and why what they do is so crucial.
Alison has been an ambassador since 2012, and says she was really thrilled when the ILF asked her to be involved. What she does, and has been doing for a long, long time, is head out to remote Australian communities and help adults and kids turn their stories into books. It’s something she really loves to do. “It’s always a real privilege to be there,” says Alison, ” and it’s not too long before everyone knows who you are and what you’re doing!” Whether the stories end up published or not, Alison believes “it’s really important for us all to have books about our lives, rather than reading books all the time that are about someone else’s life. Making these books in communities seems to be a really good way of doing that, and publishing them in language as well as in English.” You can learn more about some of the books Alison and the children have created here.
For her, these visits reinforce her perspective on the land. Being with people who have that close connection to the land help make her “more aware that there are lots of different ways of looking at the world, and how we fit into it.” It’s also special to take the time to just slow down a bit, to not be “going and talking at a million miles an hour.”
The ILF’s motto is ‘Reading Opens Doors,’ which rings very true not only for Alison and the kids she works with, but for everyone. The best piece of advice she has to offer young readers is that it’s okay if you’re not reading well yet, the important thing is to keep at it. “Once you get to the stage where you just love reading and it’s not a chore at all, the world is open to you. You can do anything and go anywhere.”
“The little kids I work with could do anything, they’re capable of running the world, but they’re not going to get the opportunity to do it.” While she’s there, Alison feels part of her role is just to “make kids realise that they are great. They’re great at writing, they’re great at reading… ”
It’s a crucial message for young indigenous kids, because the difference in literacy levels between indigenous and non-indigenous kids in remote communities is alarming, and it can be challenging to know how best to help. Alison believes we need to find solutions that work for each individual community, that are adaptable, that are relevant. One school she visits sorts their terms around the weather, since the kids were much more inclined to be in school in the wet season. For other communities, it’s more useful to have classes very early in the morning or later in the evening, with a big rest during the middle of the day. And more teachers and more pop-up libraries.
We also spoke to Alison about some of her favourite books, and what she’ll read to celebrate Indigenous Literacy Day. Alison says she really loves reading books by indigenous authors, because if you’re a person who didn’t grow up with that culture, it gives you a sense of their connection to the land. This year she’s planning to reread some of Boori Monty Pryor‘s books, like My Girragundji, about a young Aboriginal boy and his little green tree frog.
And what would she bring to a Great Book Swap? It’s when you bring a book you love and swap it for someone else’s, with the gold coin donation going to the ILF (you can learn more about hosting a swap here). For adults, it would probably be A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. And for kids: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.